We are frequently tempted to think that holiness is only for those who can withdraw from ordinary affairs to spend much time in prayer. That is not the case. We are all called to be holy by living our lives with love and by bearing witness in everything we do, wherever we find ourselves.

Are you called to the consecrated life? Be holy by living out your commitment with joy. Are you married? Be holy by loving and caring for your husband or wife, as Christ does for the Church. Do you work for a living? Be holy by laboring with integrity and skill in the service of your brothers and sisters. Are you a parent or grandparent? Be holy by patiently teaching the little ones how to follow Jesus. Are you in a position of authority? Be holy by working for the common good and renouncing personal gain. — Pope Francis, Gaudete et exultate 

I have read Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, Gaudete et exultate, so many times since its publication I have lost count. Each time back, I always discover a fresh set of insights.

It is the the first time the Magisterium has produced a whole document, written in a very accessible style, on the call to holiness (especially) for the laity whose home is the secular world. Certainly other documents have touched the subject, but there has been no single sustained reflection on the stunning development of Vatican II:

All the faithful of Christ of whatever rank or status, are called to the fullness of the Christian life and to the perfection of charity; by this holiness, as such, a more human manner of living is promoted in this earthly society (LG #40).

The “highest” vocational form of Christian life is not consecrated life or ordained ministry, but the call to holiness. All other measurements of vocational height in Christianity, important as they are, submit to the supremacy of love of God-neighbor, which is the soul and summit of holiness. In assessing the holy “heights” of priest, Levite and Samaritan-layman in the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus exalts to the highest summit the one who stooped lowest in mercy.

Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave. — Matt. 20:26-27

This is the greatness, to me, of Pope Francis’ exhortation. It democratizes holiness, with his characteristic realist, practical and earthy flair. It has the wisdom of a seasoned churchman who knows well the weal and warts of Catholic culture, who has a refined grasp of the principles of discerning God’s will in daily life, who is able to get at the simplicity of faith in the midst of the complexity of life, who loves to draw from diverse sources of wisdom that demonstrate the kaleidoscopic character of catholic Truth, and who locates joy, again and again, as the preeminent sign of spiritual vitality. #32:

Do not be afraid of holiness. It will take away none of your energy, vitality or joy.

I must say, with a bit of weariness, in the midst of an ecclesial culture rife with cutting bitterness, caustic cynicism and joyless anger, this is a welcome breath of fresh air. I said in a class I taught on this document in May, “If you want to rightly assess the teaching of Pope Francis, first spend a full year immersed in this document, striving to live its vision out to the limits of your strength, and only then dare to return to his pontificate and critically reflect.”

You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one…

“Be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

If one doesn’t have a sense of humor, it’s very difficult to be happy; it’s necessary not to take oneself too seriously. Humor also helps us to be in good humor, and if we are in good humor it’s easier to live with others and with ourselves. — Pope Francis

Once when I was agonizing over family of origin issues, a friend of mine who has a quick and sometimes sardonic sense of humor, said: “All of our family dysfunctions will be the very source of endless comedic laughter as they are healed by the mercy of God.” A lovely play on Psalm 126:1-2:

When the Lord delivered Zion from bondage,
it seemed like a dream.
Then was our mouth filled with laughter,
on our lips there were songs.

His words were, at that moment in my life, a healing balm.

My wife says she can always tell when I have been overwhelmed by some difficulty, and lost proper perspective, “because you stop making me laugh.” Humor exposes life’s absurdities and contradictions, plays on the expected and the unexpected, the familiar and the unfamiliar. Humor surprises and safely raises taboo topics, releasing built-up pressure. And it can have a prophetic force, exposing evil or injustice or incompetence. The art of funny requires a keen sense of timing, context, audience, the ability to tell a story, etc.

Of course, humor can be used for good or ill, to lift up or tear down, to humble or to shame, to lighten up or mock, to reset perspective or desecrate, to tell the truth or deceive. Humor can help us face reality more honestly, but it can also help us to avoid dealing with reality.

But as I seek to define humor, I am warned by G.K. Chesterton, “It is thus a term which not only refuses to be defined, but in a sense boasts of being indefinable; and it would commonly be regarded as a deficiency in humour to search for a definition of humour.” Kind of like having to explain a joke to someone after you’ve told it.

Good humor is, as the saying goes, “the best medicine.” Psychologically, physiologically, spiritually. Which is why quite often my bedtime readings are comedians Dave Barry and Jim Gaffigan (we will see Gaffigan performing live in a few days!). I love to watch funny movies, TV shows or stand up comedy routines. Occasionally, I (re)subject my kids to one of the (tragically) 6 episodes from the TV series Police Squad. But my favorite sitcom, and my wife’s, is the Goldbergs. My favorite TV series ever.

I love to laugh, and to make others laugh.

I have always thought we should add humor as an eighth “spiritual work of mercy,” right after “comfort the sorrowful,” and believe that the ability to make others laugh is a charism of the Spirit that, at Pentecost, was meant to go with the Church to the ends of the earth. In the words of the sage Dr. Seuss, “From there to here, from here to there, funny things are everywhere.”

I frequently ask St. Philip Neri (patron of comedians) and St. Thomas More to obtain for me this gift so I can, above all, make my wife laugh.

A Typical Day in the Life of…

Happy Ordinary Time!

It’s been, and continues to be, a very busy stretch. Amid the press of various work commitments, I drew in some fresh Spring air at our daughter Maria’s (and Ashley’s) High School graduation on Monday! Above is photo of the Neal Family, afterwards. Tears, smiles, joy, sorrow, but mostly overflowing gratitude.

The next day after graduation, Maria edited a new (and really fun) genre Mashley video. Since this Blog really serves as a cover for promoting my family, I will slip her video in here. I am hoping to resume the ruse this weekend and put some new theological posts out.

Pastry Chefs & Prostitutes [& Theology]

Today, I am simply posting a dear friend’s commencement speech from last week at our Seminary’s graduation. Hi name is Austin Ashcraft, and he gave me permission to post his brother’s phone recording (text here).

In just a few minutes, Austin captured a dynamic vision of theological education that offers a real response to the aggression of atheistic secularism with an equally impassioned theistic secularism, i.e. that prepares students to hand over a God who “so loved the world” in (an uncaged) Christ.

Let me tell you, the quality of seminarians and laity who graduated this year makes me realize the New Evangelization is in full throttle in the Deep South.